Payne’s ‘The Descendants’ is solid, but a bit over-hyped

The Descendants (2011)
Directed by Alexander Payne
115 mins.

*** (out of four)

By Tim Lucia

Director Alexander Payne’s latest effort, The Descendants, is a decent film, but a little bit disappointing (I probably went in with too high of expectations).  Payne loves the hybrid genre of dramedy, again following that pattern here.  After starting his career with the biting satires Citizen Ruth and Election, Payne went on to direct the excellent dramedies About Schmidt and Sideways.  The Descendants achieves some of the same comedic elements and situations as those two films, but lacks the emotional payoff with the drama.

Payne’s films always involve an everyman protagonist who is forced into a difficult situation, and forced to deal with quirky, odd, and somewhat troubled supporting characters.  The Descendants is no different in that respect.  Matt King (George Clooney) is a lawyer in Honolulu and a land baron, entrusted with a large chunk of idyllic paradise on Kauai that has been passed down through the generations from his royal ancestors.  The opening scene fades in on a shot of Matt’s wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) basking in the sun on a speeding motorboat.  The shot then fades out, and we soon learn that an accident occurred, and Elizabeth is now in a coma.  Matt describes himself in voice-over as “the back-up parent”, and now has to care for his two daughters, rebellious 17-year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) and cute 10-year old Scottie (Amara Miller).

On top of all that, Matt is informed his wife may have been having an affair; and his family desperately wants to sell the land to developers, netting them all a big pay day.  Of course, Matt is conflicted about all of this, but soon realizes the importance of family, despite the pain and frustration they sometimes bring.  

Some solid performances and interesting actor choices fill out the supporting characters; Alex’s dimwitted but likable boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) provides some laughs — Payne loves the dumb-but-lovable boyfriend character (Dermot Mulroney in About Schmidt, Chris Klein in Election).  Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) co-stars as Matt’s father-in-law, Beau Bridges as his cousin, Matthew Lillard (Scream) as a real estate agent, and Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as the agent’s wife — a somewhat normal character which she played well, a far cry from the crazy Kitty on A.D.  (“Say goodbye to these, Michael”).  Clooney shows somewhat of a different side of himself, gaining weight and donning some pretty ugly vestements to play Matt.  This is probably the least attractive he has looked on film, and he plays his role well.

Payne adapts most of his films and does again here, from a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.  Although, instead of working with his normal writing partner, Jim Taylor, Payne instead adapted the script for The Descendants with two actors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Though it is a decent film with good performances from Clooney and Woodley, and a setting that would make anyone want to hop on the next plane to the beautiful archipelago that is Hawaii, the film falls short of Payne’s two previous films.  There are some laughs, and plenty of drama happens, but I felt disconnected from it.  There was a lack of emotional impact, and the predictability of some of the situations, outcomes, and characters didn’t help.  A solid dramedy worth watching, but not an absolute must-see in the theater.  Side note:  HBO announced today they are canceling Hung, the dramedy series starring Thomas Jane which was executive produced by Payne.  This should ensure he will be making feature films with more frequency.  The Descendants ended a seven year drought from Payne, he has two new films announced on imbd, one already in pre-production.

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